McCarter on Gallagher and Cushman, 'Civil War Witnesses and Their Books'

Gary W. Gallagher, Stephen Cushman, eds.
Chase H. McCarter

Gary W. Gallagher, Stephen Cushman, eds. Civil War Witnesses and Their Books. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 314 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7580-4.

Reviewed by Chase H. McCarter (University of New Mexico) Published on H-War (December, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The literary legacy of Civil War witnesses represents a critical repository of perspectives on one of the most transformative events in US history. Diaries, memoirs, and narrative histories of the conflict offer insights into how witnesses internalized the war in real time and how they later remembered the war, its causes, and its impact on the country. In Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works, Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman enlist the expertise of Civil War scholars who offer rich analysis of iconic works authored by men and women, Northerners and Southerners, and civilians and combatants who lived through the Civil War. Iconic works from the period, Gallagher and Cushman explain in the introduction to their anthology, still command popular attention and provoke debate about the war. Thus, they command fresh investigation to understand how they have interlocked with other aspects of the war’s legacy.

In terms of organization, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books evaluates the writings of five men and three women, ranging from Civil War generals to hospital nurses. Five of the eight authors examined supported the United States and the other three supported the Confederacy. The anthology leans slightly toward the perspective of Unionists but, overall, offers a balance of Southern and Northern viewpoints.

The first chapter, by Elizabeth R. Varon, examines James Longstreet’s memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896), against the backdrop of his wartime record, postwar switch to the Republican Party, and clashes with critics who sought to scapegoat him for Confederate defeat. Besides serving as a means of recourse against his critics, Varon argues, Longstreet’s memoir reflected his effort at sectional reconciliation between North and South. Although complete reconciliation failed, Varon shows that through his memoir Longstreet succeeded to a certain extent in fashioning himself as a “prophet of sectional reconciliation” (p. 12).

Following Varon, William A. Blair takes up Henry Wilson’s three-volume work, The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1872–77). Wilson, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts and later vice president to Ulysses S. Grant, outlined how the “Slave Power” came to be and why it collapsed (pp. 3, 52). Blair argues that Wilson’s work is prescient in its focus on antislavery, emancipation, and “Radical Reconstruction,” which have become core issues in contemporary Civil War scholarship (p. 85).

In chapter 3, Sarah E. Gardner considers A Southern Woman’s Story (1879) by Phoebe Yates Pember. Pember spent much of the Civil War as chief matron of the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to providing insight into hospital work, Confederate medical care, and women’s wartime experiences, Gardner explains, A Southern Woman’s Story showcases the contours of Civil War memory at three critical junctions of Civil War mythmaking in ways that other works cannot.

George B. McClellan’s McClellan’s Own Story (1887) is the subject of chapter 4. Cushman argues that McClellan’s memoir provides insight into his complicated personality, the central role religion played in his life and decision-making as a general, and his frequent use of self-serving counterfactuals. Cushman concludes that McClellan’s memoir is a critical text in understanding his complexities. To ignore the insights into McClellan offered by his memoir, Cushman contends, is to give way to McClellan’s critics and “slight history” (p. 157).

In chapter 5, J. Matthew Gallman also investigates the wartime experience of women through a study of Maria Lydig Daly’s Diary of a Union Lady, 1865–1865 (1962). According to Gallman, Daly’s diary offers valuable insight into ideas about race, gender, and national politics from the distinct perspective of an elite New York Democrat. It also shows that despite her support for the Union, Daly clung to the political agenda of the Democratic Party. For example, Daly was leery of arming African Americans for military service. Overall, Gallman’s exploration of Daly’s diary reveals the range of political complexities that existed in wartime New York.

Chapter 6 by M. Keith Harris explores John D. Billings’s Hardtack and Coffee: A Union Fighting Man’s Civil War (1887). Harris argues that Billings was among the first veterans of the Civil War to detail the common experience of the war from the perspective of the enlisted fighting man. As a result, Harris shows that Billings’s text expanded Americans’ understanding of the war by personalizing it and adding the human experience.

Cecily N. Zander’s examination of Elizabeth Bacon Custer’s three major memoirs, Boots and Saddles (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1890), in chapter 7 sheds light on reconciliationist impulses during Reconstruction and the transition of the US Army into its postwar western expansion role. Zander also explains that Custer’s texts are critical in highlighting the realities of camp and garrison life. In addition, they show how nineteenth-century Americans internalized western expansion and connected it to the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Gallagher’s essay on the postwar writings of Walter H. Taylor, former assistant and close confidant of Robert E. Lee, concludes the anthology. Gallagher focuses on Taylor’s two books, Four Years with General Lee (1877) and General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861–1865 (1906). Gallagher argues that Taylor’s proximity to Lee helped him formulate the first tenets of Lost Cause orthodoxy through these works. Specifically, Taylor’s texts played a large role in postwar depictions of Lee’s character and ability as a general. They also forged the Lost Cause belief that superior federal numbers made US triumph inevitable. Gallagher concludes that Taylor’s writings are valuable texts because they enable contemporary readers to weigh both the history and memory of the Civil War.

Absent from the anthology are works authored by African Americans. Gallagher and Cushman acknowledge the absence of African American voices in Civil War Witnesses explaining in the introduction that “the press of commitments on potential contributors ... brought changes to the roster of books under review” (p. 2). Gallagher and Cushman intend to include essays on African American texts in a third anthology on the literary legacy of the Civil War.

In sum, Civil War Witnesses accomplishes what it sets out to do. It offers insight into how individuals and their texts helped to create the metanarratives of the Civil War. Each chapter imparts on the reader how individuals experienced and processed the war and how narratives of the Civil War emerged from a complex entanglement of lived experience and memory. Combined with its predecessor, Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts (2019), Civil War Witnesses conveys to readers how the iconic works of the Civil War shaped and continue to shape our perceptions of and debates about the war. This anthology should be of great interest to scholars of Civil War memory and those interested in the human experience of the war.

Citation: Chase H. McCarter. Review of Gallagher, Gary W.; Cushman, Stephen, eds., Civil War Witnesses and Their Books. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL:

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